Sunday, 10 October 2010

Mindfulness and the Fear of Death

FAQs on the subject:

Can mindfulness meditation stop me fearing my own death?
No, not necessarily, fearing death is entirely natural, a biologically inbuilt survival mechanism, and if we stop fearing death it may well mean we are about to die (of course, the reverse can be true - imminent death may well result in total loss of sphinctre control, mindless screaming, etc.) Very few are those who have no fear at all of death, even if it's only anxiety about the manner of their going.

Bugger. Let's try again: can mindfulness meditation help control or alleviate my fear of death?
Yes, quite possibly, if you are good at it.

Is it better at doing so than, say, ingesting large quantities of malt whisky and getting out of my head?

Yes, because that's a strategy that will cause you to actually feel you are near death the next morning; also, in the long run, MM is probably cheaper, and you are less likely to bore total strangers.

Isn't that exactly what you're doing now, on this blog?
Find yourself another guru, smart-arse, we're through. Next please.

Sorry. But look, I thought you said you didn't believe in gurus?
Hello, back already? No, I don't, in the 1960s psssst-wanna-buy-the-secret-of-life-only-ten-percent-of-your-salary sense, it was just a - oh, never mind. Another question?

How does MM help control your fear of death?
It's a big question - how long have you got?

Till I die.
That's the right answer. So: it works by training your mind so that it can focus on the present moment, and let the usual train of thoughts, imagined conversations, fantasies, fears, plans, memories - you know the stuff - let it all subside. It trains you to keep returning to the present. If you can manage to do this for at least part of the day, you may find it easier to remain calm, to accept things as they are, and that may include your fears about death.

There's a lot of "maybe" about your answers.

You want certainties, find yourself a snake-oil merchant.

Touch touchy!
Sorry, not very mindful of me, was it. Look what I mean is, it's actually hard work training your mind, you have to persevere, and if you don't, nothing much will happen. So, no guarantees. Also, it is a gradual process, no good sitting there expecting that in a blinding flash you will utterly change. In fact, one of the things you are likely to develop if you stay with it is an acceptance of who you are - no need to wish for blindingly sudden transformations into someone different. Though that realisation is in fact itself transformative, even though it comes without you trying to deliberately transform yourself.

If it won't make me different, what's the point.
It may change you quite profoundly, but it's a gradual growth of aspects of you that are already there, just under-used and under-valued. Bit like fitness training developing muscles you didn't even know you had. So it's all still you, but over time you may judge yourself less harshly and others less quickly, and you may be more acceptiong of yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. This can release a lot of energy and quiet happiness that was drained out of you by fighting against who you are; self-loathing is a destructive thing, is it not?

I'mc asking the questions here. Does it make you passive, dopey, easily ignored or exploited, because you are so accepting of who you are and of all those around you?
Not unless you are those things already. It can just help you to a better balance point, give you a better sense of proportion, help you to accept the things you can't change.

Say some more about mindful attitudes to death and mortality.
Let go of my lapels, please, and I'll try. I expect you can accept logically that we must all die eventually. If you are religious, or at least, if you believe in a supernatural world, a spirit world, you may think other things happen after death. If you don't, then - er - you don't. But in either case, you can't deny that however much we botox and detox, nip and tuck, take the pills and go jogging, in the end the old Grim Reaper will -

Enough already, I want you to lessen my fear of death, not add to it. Yes, OK, OK,we must all die.
Right. You are able to accept that intellectually, but find it difficult to live with emotionally. I think that living mindfully can help us to greater acceptance of our mortality, a true resignation in the face of our mortality, and that's nothing to do with being morbid.

Can we leave it there for now? These are deep matters, and I need a breather and a nice drop of Scotch.
Me too, mine's a GlenMorangie, since you asked...


  1. Much to get the grey matter whirring here. If I get you right:

    For supernaturalists, getting ready for death is all about having the intellectual courage to embrace the afterlife offer. Once you've got that certainty cerebrally installed it will see you across the gulf.

    For those of us who have no truck with such it's necessary to develop an equable and no less courageous acceptance. You call this mindfulness; the Greeks called it ataraxia.

    What makes courageous acceptance peculiarly difficult, I think, is the prevailing view of death as defeat. To succumb is to earn the soubriquet LOSER. I don't know that there is a greater block to mindfulness/ataraxia than the conduct and attitude of medics at precisely the time when they should be abetting or coaching embracement/acceptance -- at precisely the time when we need one or the other most.

    So it's not just ourselves we have to work on?

    Thank you for this early-morning workout, GM. I shall mull it all over some more as I walk the dogs... and later today over half a bottle of that whose beaded bubbles wink at the brim.

  2. Sometimes, Wikipedia, in this instance needed by me and possibly others rather than Charles,is surprisingly helpful.

    According to it, for the Epicurians, "ataraxia was synonymous with the only true happiness possible for a person. It signifies the state of robust tranquility that derives from eschewing faith in an afterlife, not fearing the gods because they are distant and unconcerned with us, avoiding politics and vexatious people, surrounding oneself with trustworthy and affectionate friends and, most importantly, being an affectionate, virtuous person, worthy of trust." Spot on. Mindfultaxia, or ataxfulness, in one.

    I thank you for your comment Charles, and I wish you freedom from vexatious people. The huge article I refer to in my previous post "Terminally Optimistic Medicine," written by a doctor, is about exactly the point you pounce on. It considers how and when patients should be guided away from treatment and optimism and towards acceptance - ataraxia, indeed.Sounds very difficult. Simpler to keep pouring stuff into them. But maybe that's the difference between a doctor and a healer. The latter can work with the knowledge that death isn't a defeat.

    Indeed we have to work on others - merely our mainstream culture, simple job...

    Meantime, enjoy those Keatsian beaded bubbles.

  3. Not one metronomic beat of the clock
    shall be repealed
    Nor will regret make old dreams real

    Blood red time is setting like the sun
    So run towards the horizon
    Before a timeless dark has come.


  4. Although according to mindfulness - that poem is wrong isn't it?

    Surely we should not be running towards any horizon in existential angst, but instead coming to terms with the length of the day?

    I'm not sure . . .

  5. Well I really like the poem, for which thanks.

    Seems to me mindfulness is just that - a state of mind, which can help us come to terms with the length of the day, but the poem isn't wrong, it's a vision and valuable as such ("Nor will regret make old dreams real" - eloquent, Arkers, eloquent. Maybe a mindful insight, the sort that comes with more acceptance and understanding.)Can't see that it rules out a run to the horizon, but agree that it should help with existential angst. Maybe experiencing and accepting your poem right now, in the present moment,is itself a mindful help towards acceptance? Katharsis then tranquillity.

    There, that's a case study in how to murder a poem by dissection, sorry...

  6. Sorry I've taken so long to catch up, Gloria, but this is great stuff - thought provoking and inspiring. Thank you.